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The Teenagers Who Stayed Awake for 11 Days: A Tale of Science, Sleep Deprivation, and Surprising Findings

In 1963, two boys in the US hatched an idea for a scientific project that would have a significant and lasting impact. Randy Gardner, 17, and his buddy Bruce McAllister aimed to beat the world record for the longest duration without sleep as a concept for their science fair project. The record at the time was held by a Honolulu DJ who had stayed awake for a mind-boggling 260 hours, just under 11 days. Their ultimate goal was to grasp how the human brain functions when sleep-deprived.

McAllister admitted to being “young fools” and stated, “We were idiots.” Their original idea was to study the impact of lack of sleep on paranormal abilities, but realizing that it was impossible, they shifted their focus to how sleep deprivation affects cognitive function and basketball performance.

To avoid going without sleep, McAllister was lucky enough to win the coin toss, leaving Gardner to stay awake for as long as he could. As the days passed, Gardner’s cognitive and sensory skills exhibited some surprising findings, including irritability, difficulty concentrating, short-term memory loss, paranoia, and even hallucinations. Brain scans revealed that Gardner had been “catnapping the whole time,” with some parts of his brain asleep and others awake.

Gardner ended the experiment after breaking the previous record and staying awake for a total of 11 days, equivalent to 264 hours. Afterward, he slept for over 14 hours and woke up on his own without feeling excessively groggy. However, he subsequently admitted to suffering from chronic and excruciating sleeplessness for years, leading to mood swings and irritability.

“Being around me was terrible. I was upset by everything. It was similar to what I did fifty years prior,” he explained.

Although Gardner’s record was surpassed later on, the current record-holder slept for a total of 453 hours and 40 minutes, which is equivalent to 18 days and 40 hours. Guinness World Records stopped keeping track of the record due to the “inherent hazards associated with sleep deprivation.”